In 1972, essayist Robert Perske first articulated the concept of the ‘dignity of risk’ in relation to caretaking for the aged and disabled. In his treatise, he put forward that “overprotection may appear on the surface to be kind, but it can be really evil … [it] can smother people emotionally, squeeze the life out of their hopes and expectations, and strip them of their dignity”, concluding that “there can be healthy development in risk taking and there can be crippling indignity in safety”.
Now, in a landmark co-production between the Australian Theatre for Young People and Shopfront Arts Co-Op, that notion is being fully embraced in Dignity Of Risk, a show devised by young artists of varying ability levels about the freedom to make mistakes.
“The idea for the show came about a couple of years ago when the Harness Ensemble – who were predominantly at that point an ensemble with disability – as they became young adults, started thinking about what they could and couldn’t do in the world; what independence they could have, and what and who around them stopped them from taking risks,” says Natalie Rose, the show’s director and Shopfront’s Creative Producer. “Then I came into the show and the ensemble grew – well, it doubled – and then ATYP came on board … and got five people from here to make it like a mega ensemble.
Watch the ATYP ensemble discuss the nature of risk below:
“We’re looking at being a person in the world regardless of ability – the ensemble is with and without disabilities – but looking at how you judge yourself, how you judge other people and how other people judge you; this sort of real tug-of-war in your life of when you’re deemed capable and incapable.”
For young performer Jake Pafumi, the experience has been revelatory, allowing him to define precisely what the process of growing up entails and the risks inherent – and necessary – to maturing. “This specific opportunity has been a real eye opener for me, personally,” he says. “I feel that the ensemble, they have vastly different experiences in the world that they’ve come from [but] we’re all kinda going along the same journey – growing up, figuring which boundaries we can push, who holds us back, what we are able to do with our abilities and capabilities – and it’s been an eye-opening experience as to how we interact with each other; how we interact with the world around us.”
If there’s no fear, how’re you gonna push yourself; how’re you gonna know your limits; how’re you gonna reach your highest potential? You just don’t know if you’re not gonna take those risks.
“There’s been this comfort in discovering that regardless of your abilities and capabilities, that everyone’s kind of in the same boat of having a bit of a shit time every now and then,” says Rose, never one to mince words. “There’s kind of comfort in the fact that we’re all in this crappy world and trying to figure out who you are together.”
Even for its co-producers at ATYP, the show itself is potentially risky – it’s rare for the company to engage in the nebulous practice of devised theatre, having primarily worked in scripted theatre before. Naturally, it’s a measured risk: Rose has built a career on devised work with collaborative performance ensemble Post, and contemporary performances incorporating personal stories are Shopfront’s bread and butter.
“Everything in the show has been generated from the ensemble in collaboration with the creative team, so it’s personal stories on stage, and it’s walking that line between fact and fiction,” says Rose. “In the fact that it’s a devised piece, there’s a risk just in that, in itself. Any devised work is risky territory. I’d say that Shopfront always uses the voices of the people in that ensemble or workshop to make the work. We’ve definitely followed that path and that’s something new for ATYP – to put on a show that isn’t entering the rehearsal period with a script. At the beginning of the period, we had no idea where we would end up.”
There’s been this comfort in discovering that regardless of your abilities and capabilities, that everyone’s kind of in the same boat of having a bit of a shit time every now and then.
The result is truly unique – a contemporary performance in which young people with and without disability recreate their personal experiences on stage, dismantling the perceived boundaries between them. “It’s real people on stage telling real stories,” says Rose.
If it sounds daunting getting up on stage at the national youth theatre and speaking to your own life experience in an experimental art form, that’s precisely the point. Rarely, if ever, before have young people (especially those with disability) been offered such a gamble – the possibility of failure, the chance to overcome a challenge, is exactly what they want and need.
“If you’re not able to push your boundaries and speak up for yourself then what’s the point in going for something, if there’s no risk?” says Pafumi.
“If there’s no fear, how’re you gonna push yourself; how’re you gonna know your limits; how’re you gonna reach your highest potential? You just don’t know if you’re not gonna take those risks. If you sit comfortably, you might be happy but you mightn’t get anywhere, but I feel like you take a risk, you can find out truly your potential and what you want to do and where you want to go.”
Dignity Of Risk runs from Wednesday August 9 – Saturday August 26 at ATYP.